Tuesday, February 08, 2011

While We Work

Two movies from a couple years ago that I've watched in recent weeks - one a big arthouse hit by a major filmmaker, another a film that probably few readers of EL outside of Brazil will have seen.  They are Claire Denis' 35 Shots of Rum (her greatest achievement since Beau travail?) and Carlos Reichenbach's mesmerizing, perhaps slightly frustrating Falsa Loura (Fake Blonde). I want to say something about how both of these films imagine small communities and their daily existence, sculpted out of jobs which can ultimately be "left at work" (indeed it's the personal which enters the labor space), where one can have a satisfying life without having to worry too greatly about a paycheck or career path.  Both films indicate on numerous occasions that their characters are not rich - they must make choices as to how to spend their discretionary income - but the fact of their discretionary income is established at the outset.  (Not in the way that Hollywood routinely generates plenty of discretionary income for its characters.  Class is not at all an absent feature of the situations here.  Commercial films frequently cannot represent the working class except through caricature as a "working class," with accents, unfashionable clothes, etc.  Art cinema, particularly outside the US, is more privileged in this respect.)  Coincidentally, concerts appear in both films as a leisure activity.  In 35 Shots of Rum they don't make it to the concert, but they can relax in a bar after-hours, and then there's a wonderful music scene anyway.

I do not wish to give the impression that these films are utopian fantasies.  They are hardly that.  I would not want, even by inadvertent suggestion, to rob them of their sociopolitical criticisms.  But what compels me to mention these films together, here, now, is still something indirect and marginal - yet pervasive - in their total construction.  These are works whose projection of a certain type of existence under labor starts to dematerialize, giving rise to the strange blurring of nostalgic longing and waged mundanity.

No one reading this needs to be reminded of "flexible" labor - probably because a lot of people who read are themselves quite subjected to these shifts in a global marketplace, living on the rapidly disintegrating precipice of an imperialist center's "information economy."  Genteel impoverishment awaits so many of us that it hasn't already claimed.  And it surely may be tempting to imagine one's own variant on an honest day's work - mediated of course by nation, race, gender, age, etc.  Get home from a relatively safe, stable, union-protected factory job and relax over dinner with a shot & a beer?  Be able to relate to co-workers because you know that you share a strength in numbers which structurally balances against management?  (Having been a former union member, before going back to school full-time, this isn't always the feeling membership inspires, these days!  Here and there the whole project's being gutted, just gutted.)  However nostalgic, masculinist, etc. any particular image of a decent worker's life might be, the fact of the image - rather than the image - is what's at stake, along the edges, of films like 35 Shots of Rum and Falsa Loura

This is to say: the promise of a merely decent, moderately stable welfare state safety net is itself experienced as a comfort - almost a luxury! - in these films.  And both present foreboding hints of life after this labor - in 35 Shots of Rum, a retired worker commits suicide because he cannot figure out what to do with himself.  And the charming Rosane Mulholland's character in Falsa Loura, Silmara, comes to a sad, disillusioning, chilling realization in her own story - as a consequence of a weekend gig taken to earn supplemental cash.  There are two levels at work here, as I see it.  One, these basic and hard-won privileges for the lives of laborers are eroding.  Two, perhaps some of us have nevertheless come to experience this negotiation as a womb rather than as a prison, and now that we're being let out, the precarity is terrifying.  Neither of these developments at all constitute news.  Obviously.  What is interesting is how they are registering in recent cinema, as emotional and social canvas, even in films whose nominal focus may not be labor relations or precarity.  The workplace is in the film, around it, but not its main point ... and yet it's absolutely the point, when seen from another perspective.

I haven't seen The Company Men (that thing with Ben Affleck, Kevin Costner, et al.) but I imagine this too participates in this kind of newly recognized desire to return to a working class cocoon.  In older films I feel like the iconographic counterpart was the home & village versus the sprawling, internationalizing tendency.  (Preminger's The Cardinal, a fairly excellent film with a dismal ending, embodies this tension really well.)  Now, there's no frontier to which we information workers in the imperial centers are told to guide our productive energies ... we are left with just a shrug, and a What's next?


I.L. said...

Great read! I loved the feeling of "contentment" in Denis' film, and to relate this to the film's portrayal of a "working class cocoon" sheds a whole new light to the film.

Filipe said...

Some very interesting points and I'm glad someone outside of Brazil saw Falsa Loura. I think it's worth to your discussion to point out that originally Falsa Loura was supposed to be #2 in a 4 part film series dealing with women workers in São Paulo suburbs known as ABC (where Brazil's largest industrial park is). After the first film, Garotas do ABC, was very bad received by both audiences and critics, Reichenbach rewrote Falsa Loura so it plays like an independent film and not a sequel (it was the only way he could get funding). Curiously, the one link he kept between both movies is the night club they go to after work.

BTW, Zach how you saw this? Among brazilian films I'd recommend from the last decade this is easily the most disliked.

ZC said...

I.L., thanks for dropping by - looking forward to reading more on your own blog!

Filipe - thanks for the background, I'm glad a Brazilian cinephile could fill me in a bit more on this. (I acquired the film through digital means, by the way.)

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